The Cambrian

Hearst Ranch conservation project marks 10-year anniversary

Mathilde Javelle and her father, Jean Michael Javelle, of France explore the bluffs near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The area west of Highway 1 was preserved in a conservation easement agreement with Hearst Ranch.
Mathilde Javelle and her father, Jean Michael Javelle, of France explore the bluffs near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The area west of Highway 1 was preserved in a conservation easement agreement with Hearst Ranch.

What do people see as they look back a decade to Feb. 18, 2005 — the day escrow closed on the groundbreaking deal to conserve the 82,000-acre Hearst Ranch?

To most, everything looks the same, although now public-access points have been added to fences along some of the 13 miles of shoreline bluffs and terraces donated by Hearst Corp. to State Parks as part of the conservation easement agreement. Those fences were installed long ago to discourage trespassers from tromping around on the 949 acres of oceanfront ranch land.

Improvements also have been made to the elephant-seal viewing area, including a boardwalk that’s done much to increase both safety and people’s ability to watch the massive sea mammals.

Those are probably the most visible differences and perhaps the ones that matter most to people who love the area.

But on the stunning rural and coastal properties east of Highway 1 and on the coastal-strip properties still owned by the corporation? Not much is different there either, according to Hearst Corp., State Parks representatives and the watchdogs that monitor the ranch. 

That lack of change was the idea behind the landmark $95 million deal that used state grant and other money to prevent what could have been extensive development on the ranch. 

Ranch operations remain much as they were a decade ago, a generation ago, a century ago — save for a few technological advances.  

According to Stephen “Steve” Hearst, corporation vice president and great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst, grass-fed cattle continue to graze on the ranch, although during the drought the herd has been cut back to protect the habitat. 

Cowboys on horseback move the cattle from range to range to prevent overgrazing on any one area.

The watchdogs 

According to watchdogs at the California Rangeland Trust and state Wildlife Conservation Board, more than 1,000 species of rare flora and fauna on the ranch appear to be flourishing, despite the drought.

John Donnelly, WCB’s executive director, has been involved with the conservation plan from the outset. He said in an email interview that his view of the project hasn’t changed. 

He wrote that, in 2000, it was a project that should be done, one that “came along at a time when the ‘stars were aligned’ ” with “a property owner ready and willing to complete a conservation transaction with three fundamental components: (1) a substantially large landscape with incredible biological and resource value; (2) opportunity to create public access to a large stretch of the central Pacific Coast; and (3) the ability to affect a perpetual wildlife-friendly working landscape conservation easement.” 

The other crucial part of the equation was that “public funding necessary to complete a conservation transaction of this size was available” with the passage of two state propositions.  

Nita Vail, executive director of the Rangeland Trust, said the conservation plan is working. 

“The grass and trees have grown, the cows remain, there are those spectacular coastal views and it’s just beautiful. … That ranch probably has one of the most amazing assemblages of resources, with more than 1,000 species of wildlife and plant life,” she said. 

“The bottom line is, Hearst’s stewardship is exemplary. … They’re really taking care of the resource because they have to, but more because they love the land. They love that property.”

The critics

Despite the successes, some are still skeptical, saying the public should have gotten more access and more proof that the conservation plan is working as it should.

Andrew Christie, the director of the Sierra Club’s Santa Lucia Chapter, wrote in an email interview that “Our concerns of 10 years ago still apply for the very reason that the questions you’re asking still need to be asked. Is Hearst being a good steward of the land? Has the public benefited from the deal? Who knows? Does anybody have any idea how it’s going? Has anybody ever seen a monitoring report or been on the property?”

Christie concluded, “Without the public oversight that should have been part of the deal, it’s not possible for anyone to know what the benefits are, which was one of the most significant problems with the deal that we (and others) pointed out a decade ago.”

Donnelly said WCB can provide to anyone who requests them summary reports of the twice-a-year assessments performed by scientists, staff of the California Rangeland Trust, a consulting biologist, Hearst management representatives and resource consultants.

The most recent of those reports, from spring 2014, covered 19 sites. Research showed that, because of the drought, rangeland production was about 20 percent of average, but “despite these extreme climatic conditions and limited production, the rangeland resources appeared to be in good condition. Good vegetative cover was observed on all pastures visited. There were no signs of erosion, bare ground or infestations of invasive species.”

The report concluded that “conservation values assessed during this monitoring visit are being protected in accordance with the requirements of the conservation easement. The monitoring team did not observe any prohibited acts or evidence of any uses of the easement area not authorized” by the document.

Another vocal opponent before the deal was struck, Pam Heatherington of Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo and Sierra Club, says now that, “I think the Hearst conservation deal was an outcome we could live with. Was it the best one? No development would have been better but unrealistic. Steve Hearst has respect for the land, and that’s a big plus.”

The back story

Before escrow closed on the deal in 2005, Hearst’s proposed “Framework for Development” was passionately defended and decried, as had been previous lavish plans to develop much of the property more intensely. 

Some critics of those plans have switched sides since then, and speak more enthusiastically of the conservation easement and its results. Others remain unconvinced that the deal struck 10 years ago today was the best one for Californians. 

When it began

The genesis for what ultimately became the Hearst Ranch Conservation Project began with those development plans from decades ago, with conflicts peaking during a marathon California Coastal Commission hearing in Jan. 1998. People determined to speak out on the project stuffed the largest banquet room of the Embassy Suites Hotel in San Luis Obispo. Overflow crowds filled the lobby and spilled out into the rainy day.

At the end of the 12-hour hearing, the commission turned down the North Coast Area Plan, the county’s proposed planning document that included extensive development on the Hearst Ranch, including homes, hotels, golf courses and other elements to which many at the hearing had objected.

Soon thereafter, Steve Hearst decided to take a different tack, one that focused on conserving the land rather than developing it, while still protecting the fiduciary responsibilities of the corporation and financial future of family members. 

All he had to do was convince the public, representatives of the agencies that could provide funding and permission for the deal, Hearst Corp. board members and, oh yes, more than four dozen other Hearst heirs.

It took nearly six years and a doggedly determined team to pull it off, a team that expanded along the way, eventually convincing and recruiting some who had been among the most devout “Hearst haters.”

Hearst and former Supervisor Shirley Bianchi have vivid memories of that time.

Bianchi had for years been a strong opponent of the original development plans and a skeptic of Hearst motives (Bianchi and Hearst properties share some boundary lines).

Recently, she recalled a couple of episodes — one more technical and the other a gut-instinct observation — that helped change her mind about the conservation proposal.

“Steve and I danced around each other for about two years. I didn’t trust him, and he didn’t trust me,” she said. Then Hearst and attorney Roger Lyon developed the conservation plan’s “Framework for Development,” which laid out rather succinctly what the easement would and wouldn’t do and allow. 

Bianchi met with the two men at the former 1865 Restaurant. 

“After having been in government for so long, and seen so many B.S. documents, I was initially impressed with the simplicity of that one,” she said. “The language appeared to be such that it could not be misinterpreted,” and she basically liked what that language said. She and her husband dissected the document for the next three days, but could find no flaws.

Sometime later, the Bianchis toured the ranch property with Hearst. On that warm day, the windows were down on the large SUV. 

Bianchi recalled that, “while he was driving us around, Steve said, ‘Listen! There’s a buck over there.’ None of us could see it at first, but Steve had heard the fallen leaves move under the buck’s feet as the animal got up. That’s when I knew he’d spent a lot of time on the ranch … that he really loved and knew the land. Otherwise, he never would have recognized that sound.”

Soon thereafter, according to Steve Hearst, he and Marty Cepkauskas, the corporation’s director of Western Real Estate, were “heading out the see the sunset” with Hearst Ranch manager Cliff Garrison. “We had the radio on, and we heard a public service announcement on which Shirley told everybody to please be patient and stop the rhetoric. She said she’d met with me, liked the ideas I’d forwarded and she was ‘cautiously supportive.’ ”

A surprised Hearst said then, “Marty, did you just hear what I heard?” Now he says, “It was a turning point for us” and Hearst’s passionate determination to conserve the many resources of the ranch he loves so much.

(Through dozens of public meetings, workshops, neighborhood coffees, and numerous tension- and testimony-filled hearings over the six-year period, the Hearst plan eventually was approved and funded.

The ranch today

Since the easement went into effect, problems on the State Park coastal strip actually have been reduced somewhat, said Brooke Gutierrez, interim superintendent of the San Luis Obispo Coast District.

She said that’s because under parks rules, the agency can patrol and staff the property more intensely.

Hearst Ranch itself now is one of the largest conserved ranch properties in the nation and the largest along the California coast. 

But the Hearst name isn’t just the stuff of legends, fortunes, a castle, a state park, a corporation and a historic cattleman’s brand.

It’s also a commercial brand that began on packages of upscale hot dogs (no longer available) and now is found on award-winning wine and grass-fed beef.

All that has been added since the conservation deal was finalized. But, according to those at the center of the agreement, the new ventures haven’t caused any changes or increased impacts on the land.

Vail, at Rangeland Trust, said she believes the Hearst deal is a model for other conservation easements elsewhere in the state and nation because other ranchers and farmers “are seeing that working landscapes can be preserved” that way. 

Kara (Blakeslee) Woodruff agrees. She worked on the Hearst project from the get-go, first for The Nature Conservancy and later for American Land Conservancy. She said the deal “inspired the San Luis Obispo County community to be even more conservation-minded,” and helped active participants “to forge relationships with funding agencies, with the communication network, with the people who love outdoor recreational opportunities,” and many more. 

She said those working on the deal shared a vision for conservation.

“We were all tenacious enough and unwilling to give up. We never really believed failure was possible. We knew we had to make this project work.”